This is not a shameless plug for Time Frame, the online publication (Oops, maybe it was). No, this is about the setting of a story, and whether or not you should root your story in a particular point int time.
Questions come up all the time on AW about cultural references (in fact, one fortuitously popped up last night after I had started writing this). “Should I refer to Lady Gaga?” they ask. “Is it okay to have my characters Google something, or change their Facebook status?” “Can I mention President Obama?” Most of the time, the question is being asked because the writer is afraid of being sued for defamation or copyright infringement. In general, the answer is the same: Yes, you can mention people, products and companies by name, bu-u-u-u-t…
‘Bu-u-u-u-t’ is generally followed by something along the lines of ‘you shouldn’t put pop culture references in your book.’ Why? Because it will date your work, and the last thing you want is to put a time stamp on your writing, unless a) you’re writing historical fiction, in which case you should stamp away, or b) it’s integral to the story, like your book is about US Marines landing on Okinawa. If it’s neither a or b, they say, stay away from anything that will fix your story in time. The fear is that people who don’t understand the reference will be turned off by it, and that, by rooting it in such a way, your book will not be read and dissected by English students 100 years from now.
I understand this, but I have to wonder if the concern is overrated.
One of the authors I really enjoyed growing up was S.E. Hinton, especially the books The Outsiders, and That Was Then, This is Now. Both books were published when I was very young; by the time I read them, their ‘age’–the years of teenage gangs, and the drug/hippie culture that was so important—had passed by. Granted, they weren’t totally full of pop culture, but they dealt with a world that was far different from the east coast, suburban community I grew up in. Teenage gangs? That was the stuff of West Side Story, not my everyday life. Drugs? At the time I first read these books, drugs were background noise, nothing more. The cultural backdrop of the books was so different from my own, yet it didn’t make a difference at all: I enjoyed them immensely, read them over and over again, and was thrilled to see them turn up on my daughter’s reading list a couple of years ago.
Perhaps this is not quite the same thing as finding a book loaded with pop references. I don’t remember Hinton’s books naming particular musical acts or songs, TV shows, or delving deep into the movies of the day, but I don’t think it would have mattered. Hinton wrote a compelling story, with believable characters. I’d like to think that’s more important than anything, and that referencing Dora the Explorer, Fonzie, “Where’s the beef?” or Burma Shave isn’t going to cause readers to run screaming from a book just because they don’t get the reference. Then again, I’ve seen plenty of people say they won’t buy a book just because it has a prologue.
All that said, I think it is possible to overdo it, but is a reference here or there overdoing it? I don’t think so. The thing that most dates a story in my view is the writing itself, not what the story is about, or what it references. And remember this: All writing will become dated as language and society change.